Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | The big election yawn

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Now we know it's November 28 for the local government polls, a mercifully short campaign season after a long wait for the announcement. Not only that! Thanks to the Debates Commission, we have two debates scheduled, which is just in time to remedy the debate deficit I'm experiencing now that the US presidential election is winding down and I can no longer be entertained by Donald Trump's techniques.

Speaking of that, I had to caution a friend who was walking around telling people he planned to put his 'X' beside the orange head, because with the extraordinary interest in the US election and the lack of interest in the local one, it wasn't so obvious which election he was talking about. And I don't put it past some of our countrymen to even cross borders to vote early and often.

I've thought of who in Jamaica could credibly be designated the Jamaican Trump, and there really isn't a perfect candidate. The closest would have been Everald Trumpington in his heyday, but he has been so sedate and muted recently that he wouldn't deserve the title presently. But hope springs eternal, and he could get back on form in the future.

Entirely coincidentally, the election announcement came within a few days of Junior Finance Minister Audley Shaw's announcement that the economy grew by 2.3 per cent in the July to September quarter, the highest quarterly growth since 2002. This is great news for Jamaica.

Much of that growth came from agriculture, spurring that same careless correspondent voting for the 'orange head' to ask about the current punishments for praedial larceny, since Audley is reaping fruit Peter Phillips sowed.

But never mind all that. The PNP has the unenviable and difficult task of defending in the local after a loss in the general, which isn't traditionally a sweet spot to be in.

 

Background checks

 

On the other side, I noticed that Chairman Montague has asked the police to run background checks on all of his 228 candidates. It's a good idea, but not particularly impressive unless he publishes the results and sets a precedent that perhaps both parties would be forced to follow henceforth.

I think everyone is expecting a very low turnout, perhaps even a record low.

McPherse Thompson, writing in Thursday's Gleaner, published some thoughts that brushed up against why people have such waning interest:

"Some suggest that local government authorities have largely been usurped by central government ... and hence see no good reason to participate in the democratic process. Anyone so inclined to think, however, should seek to make himself or herself more aware of the rationale for local government and make the effort to hold their local representatives to account for the functions they have been mandated to undertake."

By way of a weak apology for the majority of Jamaicans who will ignore this poll, a few points are in order. The trouble, McPherse, is that even if I know what the rationale for local government is, I also know what the reality is, and so too, we can be certain, do many other citizens. And that's why they largely ignore the local polls.

In theory, parliamentarians are meant to be concentrating on the big picture, reviewing and passing laws, and tending to national business. Councillors, in theory, will tend to the local services like drain cleaning, road repair, garbage collection, and a multitude of other more parochial concerns.

In reality, this is not only far from what happens, but you could say that the theory and the reality have had a bitter and acrimonious divorce. MPs are intimately involved in the planning, monitoring and, sadly, all too often, the distribution of work and benefits.

As demand for welfare benefits has always outstripped supply, and likely always will, it's a doomed formula. But they're stuck. So they just continuously daydream of the paradise of a bigger Constituency Development Fund to satisfy the demands, and relish the little trough they do have, the weighty fulminations of The Gleaner notwithstanding.

And that's even before looking at the continued demolition of the better parts of our political culture that this practice has actively encouraged or accelerated. For it engenders dependency, servility and, ultimately, disappointment, resentment and anger.

 

Beggar-in-chief

 

Please recall that quite early, on the newly minted parliamentarian Damion Crawford complained bitterly about realising his powerlessness as an MP. He was curtly reminded that this was the work for which he had been hired by constituents: to be a beggar-in-chief, rice bowl in hand to state bureaucrats. It is a known and conveniently celebrated feature of our system that the best MP is the MP who begs best.

So when McPherse asks us to "be mindful that members of parliament, including the prime minister, have been elected to make laws, rather than attending to the bread-and-butter political issues", I respectfully acknowledge that as an expression of some kind of magnificent idealism. If that were true, perhaps we might live to witness a Parliament working hard to modernise our laws even when there isn't an IMF whip cracking over their collective backs. But as of now, a man can withhold a gun wanted for a murder investigation on pain of a mere $1-million fine.

By the way, we've been hearing about 'local government reform' for so long, because it actually means nothing at this point. As MPs have injected themselves into the role of councillors, local functions have been largely swallowed up by national institutions. So the NSWMA deals with the garbage, the NWA deals with the roads, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security has mostly overtaken poor relief.

I should add that I intend to vote, and encourage others to consider it seriously. But that is more out of stubbornness and as a result of habituation, not because of any conviction that local government will ever use its initiative to make any earth-shattering changes, or, really, even modest ones. We big kids can move past that particular conceit.

• Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.